The Cuban government has sent squads of military and police to end a spike in the selling of goods on the black market amid the pandemic, but the response seems likely to only criminalize citizens in difficult economic straits.
In early August, over 3,000 groups of army, police and government officials were dispatched across the country to stop “hoarders” from buying essential goods in quantities exceeding state-set limits and then reselling them to the public at inflated prices, Cuban Prime Minister Manuel Marrero said during a TV interview.
The squads will seek to prevent reselling at specific shops, malls, pharmacies and hardware stores, as well as online sellers, though few specifics have been given about what actions they will take. Recently, state-owned media has ramped up aggressive language to depict resellers as enemies of the people, saying that they “no humanity” and insisting they should be “taken off the streets.”
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In July, reports surfaced of resellers being arrested and quickly tried. While most were heavily fined, an elderly man in the western province of Matanzas was jailed for reselling 100 screws, Diario de Cuba reported.
Though Cuba has long had a thriving black market, prices for food, cleaning supplies and clothing have surged during the pandemic amid shortages. A CubaNet investigation revealed how resellers — who join lines that can last for hours at specific stores — buy more items than the legal limit. They then sell them, mostly online, through messaging applications like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Telegram. Facebook Messenger is the most popular app due to users not needing to enter a phone number that could be tracked by authorities.
Since last year, the government has passed a number of measures to restrict stocks of essential goods at risk of running out due to the country’s worsening economic crisis. Price controls were imposed in September 2019. In April, due to the pandemic, outdoor markets were closed and each shopper was limited to buying two of each kind of item at state-owned stores, CubaNet reported.
But scarcity at mandated government stores has only exacerbated reselling. In late July, reports emerged of stores rapidly running out of essentials like chicken and soap. Some were left with little more than yogurt.
Buying products on the black market, even at highly inflated prices, has essentially become a means of survival for many Cubans, according to CubaNet.
InSight Crime Analysis
The government’s crackdown on the Cuban black market is troubling for two main reasons.
First, resellers and those who buy from them are not criminals seeking to undermine the island’s economic model. They are simply trying to get by in tough times.
“They are not hoarders. They are people who do this because they don’t have any other economic choice. They are often unemployed single mothers, who can dedicate their time to hunt products in various shops … they are not sitting on products waiting for the price to go up, they need money to invest again,” Laura Rodríguez, the journalist who led the CubaNet investigation, told InSight Crime.
César Mendoza, a Cuba expert at the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), added that the vision of hoarders clearing out stores is inaccurate because individuals do not have the financial ability to do so. “They are not buying thousands of items, just four or five to later resell on the black market,” he told InSight Crime.
It is also unclear what alternate route the government wishes people take. The island’s residents wait on interminable lines at government shops only to find empty shelves. Online stores created by authorities have also run out of products, when they were accessible at all.
“If the government is not capable of establishing a sales network, this illegal market has done it,” said Rodríguez.
Secondly, Cuba has a troubling history of violence linked to “rapid response brigades” made up of police, military and other government forces. First deployed in the 1990s by the late former President Fidel Castro to crackdown on political opposition, the brigades continue to be used today and have been linked to violence against protesters and property destruction.
These rapid response brigades, according to some analysts, are the forebears of the “colectivos” in Venezuela. These armed civilian groups have acted as paramilitary squads in defense of the regime of President Nicolás Maduro, and they have also been linked to homicides, kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking.